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Stop talking and start listening to your community

By Eric Seiberling

Parents teach their children the importance of listening instead of interrupting conversations. Parents often model the ever-important "two-minute rule." Simply stated, it means listening to any conversation for two minutes to get an idea of what people are talking about before throwing in one's opinion.

The same is true for churches. Often, marketing efforts resemble someone walking into a room and screaming, "Look at me; look at me!" Someone creates a church blog, Twitter account and Facebook page and starts screaming "PAY ATTENTION TO ME!"

While that may work for a small child, it will get adults ignored, blocked or flamed in social media.

Stop, look and listen before jumping into the digital pool

Take the time to LISTEN. Spend 15 minutes each day listening about your church, your target and your community. Learn what is going on and how others in the digital world see and perceive your church. You'll discover a whole conversation going on about your community, faith and key issues people face. It is common courtesy to listen before jumping in.

Start by identifying to WHOM you will listen. This may seem like a basic question, but it is essential to determine to which conversations you want to listen. Conversations in your community about parenting are different from those involving job seekers, singles or teenagers. Like being at a party in a crowded room, you need to determine your focus if you want to understand anything.

Brainstorm WHAT you want to listen for. Now brainstorm all of the key words for which you will be searching. Here are several areas to get you started:

  • Your community: Start with your city name. Add terms that refer to your community. If your church is in Hampton, Va., you might want to include Hampton Roads, Tidewater, Coastal Virginia and the names of surrounding communities.
  • Your church: Start with key words that relate to your church and your community such as city name, church name, church URL, pastor's name, staff names, event names, mission elements and issues about which your church cares. Also, make sure to list Twitter accounts associated with your church and staff and hashtags related to your organizations or events.
  • Your audiences: Brainstorm keywords for audiences you have identified. For parenting, you might choose keywords such as disciplining children, child care, saving for college and so on. List the current issues your audience is talking about.

Now that you have your list of terms, combine them to make the results more meaningful for your church. Test these combinations of words by conducting a simple search and refine them to get the results you want. You also can use Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT) to refine your efforts. Fine-tuning your keywords will take time to get the results you seek.

Determine WHERE to listen. The Internet has different search tools you can use to search the Web, news, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, discussion forums and many other websites to find what people are saying. While hundreds of tools are available, here are a few to get you started:

  • Google Alerts: Find updates of the latest relevant Google results (Web, news and so forth) based on your choice of query or topic. Monitor a news story, keep current with your industry and competitors and see who is writing about you.
  • Twitter Search: Search Twitter conversations.
  • Social Mention: Search social media sites including Facebook.
  • Boardreader: Find and display information posted on the online discussion forums and message boards.

Go to the different sites and try various keyword searches. Refine them to make sure you are listening to the right conversations and filtering out the noise. Find the right search terms and subscribe to the RSS feed.

Create a single place to listen: RSS readers are software that grab fresh content from blog posts, Web posts, Twitter and "persistent Google searches" and bring them into one place to make it easy for you to reach. Popular readers include NetVibes. You also can use Flipboard, Pulse or Google Currents apps on your iPad, iPhone or Android device to manage and read your subscriptions. This will make it easier to listen every day.

Take the time to listen. Whatever tools you use to listen to digital conversation, make sure you do it for 15 minutes every day. If the volume of information is too much or not relevant, take the time to clean up the searches. A little "housekeeping" in the beginning can pay big dividends later. Once a week, summarize the key "ahas" for church leaders. Keep it brief. Cut and paste relevant quotes and add your perspective. Look for themes and discuss them with your leadership to determine how to respond or engage in the conversation.

Listening should become a daily habit for your church. It can help you to be more in touch with the online conversation in your community and knock down the walls between your church and your community.